Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Flight to Moscow

Day 2 began pretty much the way Day 1 ended — at 35,000 feet. The only thing that really marked the passage of a day was a change in the clocks. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t clear when the day actually started. You see, it was an eight hour flight, and we were traveling east (hence we were going ahead in time), so our day changed well before our clocks’ day.

It wasn’t long before the sun had risen far enough that we could see below us again. All we could see was water — and lots of it. The North Atlantic is a frightening place. The storms there are legendary it takes one brave soul to sail those seas. Ditching the plane at that point would probably mean certain death for us. Even if it was the start of summer, the cold waters would drop us in no time.

Before long, the ocean gave way to snowcapped mountains. I assumed the range was part of Norway. (Although I had to admit I wasn’t 100% certain of my assumption, a semester of European and Asian Geography led me to believe that I was in fact looking at the northwestern coast of Norway.)

As we crossed over the peaks of the mountains, the plane suddenly lost about 1000 feet in altitude. I don’t know if this was because of the thermals from the mountains beneath us, or if the pilot had accidentally let the stick go a bit too far forward. At any rate, it took a moment for out stomachs to fall out of our heads. The group in the rear half of the plane, however, had to retrieve their brains from the overhead compartments.

(Remember all those free drinks? Well, the group in the rear partook rather heavily of said beverages gratis, and got, shall we say, comfortably numb? They were like that for most of the flight one way of passing seven-some-odd hours and were still well-liquored as the plane dropped from beneath them. I’ve never been inebriated and in that kind of a situation, so I have no clue what it could have felt like, but judging from the en masse half moan / half yelp from behind us, it couldn’t have been all bad.)

Soon the plane was beginning to hug the ground. I was a little curious about that, especially since I hadn’t seen any signs of civilization whatsoever. Until that point, I had always landed at airports that were near (or in) a city. You could see buildings, people, cars, and forth, right up until the runway appeared below your window. But in Helsinki, the airport’s buried deep in a forest. It’s a little on the unnerving side when you think you’re going to crash into the trees.

The plane landed sometime around 07:30 Helsinki local time. The airport continued to amaze me, this time with its size — it was tiny. This was the capitol city’s (and largest Finnish city’s) airport, but had only a small terminal building and only two runways. (By comparison, Toronto had two immense terminal buildings, with a third under construction, and five or six runways.) There were no hangars of any kind, and no gangways. So instead of sidling up to the terminal building, as with most North American airports, we were met with a rolling staircase. We wouldn’t see another gangway until we returned to Toronto.

The articulated bus that met us was huge, quite capable of fitting everyone from the half-full plane. The bus then drove us to a loading dock-style station under the terminal building. There we shuffled through the doors into an atrium. We had two choices: go through Finnish Customs, or go upstairs to the terminal lounge. We probably would have stood there for quite a while debating the issue if it weren’t for our trusty EF tour guide, Suzanna. She didn’t have a hard time spotting our group, nearly all of us were toting white EF duffel bags.

Suzanna would be our guide for nearly the entire trip, taking us into and through the Soviet Union, then back to Helsinki at the end. She was of British nationality (at least by birth), and was from the Manchester area (if I’m not mistaken). She was a bit taller than me (I was about 5′ 9″ at the time), though that might have been due to her high-heeled shoes. She almost always wore a full-length skirt and a t-shirt of some sort. She was extremely beautiful, yet for some reason had a severe aversion to having her picture taken.

We were led up the stairs to the departure lounge, where we found Pete and Jason deep in philosophical debate Pete was trying to find out whether his life would improve if he stained Jason’s shorts with hot coffee. (Jason had accidentally spilled coffee on Pete’s shorts during the flight.) But we couldn’t find KB. Right about then, I heard that he had ended up in Tokyo.

That’s right, Tokyo. Japan. Other side of the planet. In a strange way, it seemed to make sense to me if airlines can lose luggage, why not people? After a few minutes of repeatedly uttering “Japan?!” in astonishment, someone clued me in that “Tokyo” was being used as a figure of speech. In reality, we had no idea where KB was. Our best information placed him about six hours behind us, which meant that we weren’t going anywhere for a while. And regretfully, Helsinki Airport doesn’t have much to see.

The first order of business was to get our tickets for the flight to Moscow. This was a rather quick procedure, having been preplanned before our departure. Despite our later-than-planned arrival, we still had time to kill before our plane departed for Moscow. Having little else to do, we ventured over to the bar for something to drink. Nearly everyone ordered something with an above-the-recommended daily dosage of caffeine. The only ones who didn’t (to the best of my recollection) were Mom (Mrs. Pollitt) and myself. Mom opted for something of the alcoholic persuasion, and I for nothing at all. (I didn’t drink coffee or tea, and I wasn’t terribly thirsty at the time.) Most people had their fill of booze on the plane, and were partaking of a much more down-to-earth drink.

We found a table, and began to tell our collective sides of the story to date. Pete and Jason’s flight was at least a little more bearable than ours (as I said, my fortune to making my flights was only fortuitous from a certain point of view), in that they had an in-flight movie (Rain Man), and free beer. (Given, we had free drinks, but I didn’t find the amusement of pulling sections of the wall apart enough to keep me occupied for the entire flight.)

An hour later, we were herded down the length of the terminal to a corner of the boarding area. The area was chosen for its remoteness from everyone else. (Already signs were showing that we were not going to be an easily controlled group.) Then came the blow we were dreading: we weren’t going to Moscow for a few more hours. The Soviets refused to let us into the country without our visas. This was understandable, but to a flotilla of hyperactive teenagers (some of whom were beginning of come down from the alcoholic high), which was a death knell. We couldn’t leave the airport either. We were trapped. Oh, joy.

Almost as soon as the announcements finished, Greg took a cue and passed out on the floor. It was roughly 03:00 Toronto time, and most of us hadn’t slept during the “night”. Signs of exhaustion were appearing on the faces of some, boredom on others. No sooner than Greg started snoozing that several packs of cards began to circulate amongst hands. Shaun, Jason, and Derek began a friendly game of poker. The stakes began to rise when Lisa V. donated some of her plethora of peanuts and cinnamon hearts to the foray.

Even the teachers / chaperones began to get bored. Mr. Phillips started giving people M*A*S*H nicknames, starting with William “Radar” O’Reilly, an obvious choice. I pulled a tape out of my bag, popped the phones over my ears, and began to tune out to music, letting the rest of the world sink into the background — at least for a while.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890701.10

Day 2

This is the second journal entry in less than six hours. A good part of us are now lounging around waiting for our flight to Russia. We have found out that Mr. Black missed the plane, and he has all our visas. This outta be fun! Right now, Mr. Phillips is starting M*A*S*H nicknames, starting with “Radar” O’Reilly.

After about a half-hour of listening, I began to notice a hissing in my right ear. At first, I thought it was the tape I was listening to. Only after stopping the cassette did I realize that I was Pete hissing at me. I looked up to asking what in blazes was so important to — then I noticed where Toni’s head was. (Those of you currently thinking what I think you’re thinking had better stop thinking it. Aside from the fact that this was a public airport, Toni wasn’t that kind of person.) She had decided to go to sleep, and was using Pete’s right thigh as a pillow. Pete didn’t need to say another word.

I quietly rummaged around in my bag and pulled out my trusty Minolta X370 35mm camera. Toni’s angelic sleeping form, and Pete’s gaping expression were forever captured on celluloid a moment later. (It would not be the last time I caught Toni sleeping and I stress sleeping as in terms of “being asleep” with someone.)

An hour later, Suzanna reappeared with a handful of green pieces of paper. Finnair seemed to feel for our plight, and had offered all of us free lunches at the airport’s only restaurant. Most of us took the opportunity to at least obtain something free to drink (other than water), a few of us noting that our appetites could use some quelling. We snatched the coupons with hungry (or thirsty) abandon, and hustled our way over to the restaurant.

The restaurant was on the “second” floor of the terminal (the terminal was built with an open-concept, but had a raised section in which the restaurant operated), and surprisingly empty. Several of us quickly tried to take seats, but weren’t sure what to with the Reserved signs all over the tables. But the waitresses, excuse me, servers, indicated that the tables were in fact for us, so we hastily took seats. The servers took the coupons we so proudly waved, and disappeared into the kitchen behind us. They returned a moment later with eight bottles of Coke (there were eight at our table) and eight glasses. Only two decided to be heathens and drink from the bottle. (Hey, my family stems from William the Conqueror, I’m a heathen at heart!)

After a few minutes, the server returned again, this time carrying several plates of — something. I really didn’t know what to think of it then, and I certainly don’t know what to call it now. The nearest I can describe, it was a large slice of meat (whether it was a steak, a slab of roast beef, or that morning’s airport runway roadkill was impossible to tell), covered in some of the thickest gravy I have ever seen in my life. (It was so thick that no matter how hard you tried, it was impossible to see the meat through the gravy.) A side of sliced carrots finished off the ensemble.

The meal, overall, was bland. The meal(s) we had on the flight over the Atlantic were better, at least in my humble opinion. But bland or not, I was hungry (as I usually was at that age). So was almost everyone else, except Lisa V. By all rights, it was approaching breakfast time back in Halton County, and our internal clocks hadn’t quite reset themselves for European time. But Lisa just sat there, picking at her meat and carrots.

Lisa’s complained that she was too fat to eat. (I’ll excuse you if you want to think about that statement a moment.) Allow me to shed my perspective on the issue: Lisa was not, nor would ever be possibly mistaken as being, even the slightest bit overweight. Whether she was a victim of the anorexic modeling waif, I don’t know. But this much I was certain of: if she didn’t something, she’d start to implode from the vacuum.

I wasn’t the only one to pick up on Lisa V.’s potentially dangerous lack of eating habits. The remaining six soon started piping in that Lisa should eat something, even if it was only the carrots (which do not contain fats of any kind). It was only after a great deal of prodding that she started to nibble on the odd carrot slice.

We were still munching away when a familiar-looking older man with a yellow plastic visor appeared at the restaurant entrance. The group of us gave Mr. Black a standing ovation for arriving. (A few other people sitting nearby, whom we didn’t know at all, joined in.) He smiled broadly, bowed slightly, and informed us to meet back with the rest of the group as soon as possible. We quickly finished our meals.

The tickets needed to be changed. We had missed our scheduled flight (which had left several hours earlier), and now needed new tickets. KB and Suzanna vanished to make the arrangements while the rest of us waited around. A couple of us took interested in playing with some family’s five year old kid to try and pass the time.

When KB and Suzanna returned, we picked ourselves up and prepared for our second flight in as many days. Destination: behind the Iron Curtain. Moscow awaited our arrival, and we longed to get the heck out of that airport terminal. We marched triumphantly down the hallway, down a flight of stairs, and walked towards our worst nightmare.

We were flying Aeroflot.

For those of you who have never heard of Aeroflot, that would be because Aeroflot is the Soviet national airline. It only flies on route where at least one of the endpoints of the flight is Soviet. Not to mention the fact that if Aeroflot were silly enough to venture out into the free market, it would be driven into the ground in no time. Sure, Aeroflot has an impressive flight record (no recorded crashes), but then again it was only after absurdly strong radiation levels showed up in Finland did the Soviets admit that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had blown up.

Anyway, back to the plane. The plane was built by the Tupolev company, and looked like McDonnellDouglas DC9, except that the nose was slightly different, and the tail ailerons were oriented on the tail (like a Boeing 727) instead of on the hull. (A side note: the Soviets were notorious for producing planes that were suspiciously similar to ones build in the West. But then again, the West did the same with a few fighter aircraft.) It also looked a little shorter, but then I hadn’t boarded a 727 from the ground before.

The doorway was also in a different location: roughly one-third the way down the hull. Usually the doors are right behind the cockpit, but between the cockpit and the passenger compartment was a cargo section. (Gee, I wonder which took priority?) The seats were none too comfortable either. The foot room was nearly nonexistent. My seat was on the starboard (right) side of the plane, wedged between Sasha (on the window) and Konrad (on the aisle).

After the lot of us had taken their seats, and were raising our now nearly typical ruckus, the crew closed the door and began to pressurize the cabin. In most North American-built planes (at least with all the ones I’ve flown in), you never notice the change in cabin pressure prior to takeoff. It’s an entire different sensation when you see mist pouring out of vents running along the tops of the overhead shelves (the compartments didn’t have doors the Soviets built planes like Americans build buses, only worse). For a brief moment, I thought they might be gassing us.

For all I know, maybe they did gas us. Maybe the entire trip was nothing but a dream. A bizarre, albeit extremely clear, hallucination that invaded our collective unconsciousness, designed to make us believe that we had done all that we thought we had done, so that the net effect was positive for all sides (the Soviets wouldn’t have to deal with us, and we’d still have the memory of having been there). Of course, that wouldn’t explain where I got all that neat Soviet stuff…

We rolled to the end of the runway, and started to take off. Again, the design flaws of Soviet aircraft showed through as we began to accelerate we were deafened by the roar from the engines. Planes built elsewhere in the world tend to have a fair bit of soundproofing to cut down on the noise. The Soviets didn’t seem to care too much. It lasted only a few moments, until we were airborne. But it was loud enough to drown out Batdance, which I had playing at near full volume.

The flight itself was uneventful. Sasha fell asleep within minutes, his fedora covering his face. It didn’t take Konrad long to strike up a conversation with Chris, who was two rows up from us. This left poor little me with little to do. I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t see anyone in front or behind me (airline chairs are always huge, even in the Soviet Union) — I was isolated.

Our only break in the monotony of the hour and a half flight came about halfway through the trip, when the flight attendants served us an in-flight snack. And I stress “snack”. It was a small plate of various kinds of fish (in both raw and cooked states), and a wrapped cube of something to one side. Konrad and I opted to share a serving, while Sasha opted not to wake up.

I picked at the fish, while Konrad unwrapped the cube. It was about ten centimetres in size, so was easily large enough for two people. I don’t know exactly what it was, but it tasted like dried maple syrup. The fish, although somewhat fresh, wasn’t my cup of tea. Neither was the maple cube. We tried to eat as much as we could, partly because I don’t like letting food go to waste, and also because we didn’t want to look unappreciative.

Eventually, the plane started to descend towards Moscow. Again, I started rooting through my duffel bag, searching for a special cassette tape. I had made it a couple years previous, taping the theme from a TV show through my stereo. This was back in the days when stereo wasn’t a huge commodity on TV, so the signal I got was monaural. At the time, I didn’t know how to combat the problem, so I had to listen to the music on only one side. As I was packing the day before, I had remembered the tape, and wanted to bring it along.

I hit the Play button as the plane came onto final approach. The bass line was unmistakable, anyone who had watched any amount of TV over the past 30 years would recognize it. The theme from Mission: Impossible blared through the left side of my head as we headed towards the ground. It seemed very appropriate music to be playing just before touchdown. As the tune ended, the wheels squealed on the tarmac.

The plane slowed, turned off the runway, and headed towards the terminal. But like in Helsinki, the plane came to complete stop some distance from the terminal. We started to get up to disembark, but were told to remain seated until the shuttle bus arrived. So we sat. And waited. Sasha went back to sleep. And we waited. Outside, it was raining, not at all like the bright sunny weather in Helsinki. The weather didn’t improve the apparent dreariness of the airport.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

Finally arrived in Moscow after many delays. However, we are now stranded in the airplane and it is raining! Great way to start.

After about a half hour wait, we were finally let off. A small dingy yellow bus awaited us at the foot of the staircase. It was then I noticed just how low slung Soviet airplanes are. Their western counterparts all stand high enough to let a tall person walk underneath with room to spare. You have to duck when walking under a Soviet-built plane.

The bus whisked us quickly to the terminal, where we were to go through customs and retrieve our bags. Mr. Phillips made a valiant effort to try and keep the entire group together, so no-one would get lost in the melee, but the guards (about twenty of them) kept shuffling us forward without regard for our attempts at organization. Within a few moments, we were queued in front of the customs booths. The room was a clamour of voices, some from the lobby beyond, the rest from the public address system. No-one in line so much as whispered.

At the time, I had no clue what these booths were. This kind of thing was simply not seen in North America. When you go through customs there, you walk up to a desk, they ask you if you’re carrying any fruit or illegal firearms, and you’re in. But Europe isn’t quite as trusting as Canada and the United States are with each other. And considering this was the Great Communist Threat, I was expecting a lot of trouble.

But this wasn’t even Customs, so I was about to find out. Customs is separate. First, you have to go through Passport Control, where the guards make 100% certain that the person in the passport is the same person standing in front of them. Customs comes only if you manage to get through Passport Control without ending up in front of a firing line.

Mr. Phillips was the first up. He walked up with a broad smile on his face, and handed over his passport and visa. The guard took them, stamped the visa, looked briefly at the passport, and handed it back to him. Without a word passed between them, Mr. Phillips simply nodded and continued to the other side. Sasha looked at Konrad and I, smiled as if to say: “This is easy!” and walked over to the booth.

Then began 20 Questions. Sasha nearly broke out in a sweat from the interrogation. Konrad and I wondered if Sasha had accidentally screwed up the information on his visa. For several minutes the guards scrutinized every detail of the visa and passport, asking him questions about the information. Sasha kept looking at us like he was about to get hauled off to Siberia. But finally the guards gave Sasha his visa and passport back. Sasha smiled wearily, and stumbled through. I was up next.

The booth was about two and a half metres wide, and four metres tall. A single pane of glass running from about stomach height to the top of the booth was all that separated me from the guard. He looked like an officer of the Soviet Army, but it was hard to tell many Soviet law enforcement agents wore similar (if not the same) style of uniforms.

It was the longest five minutes of my life to date. I stared, almost unblinkingly, at the guard while he stared, almost unblinkingly, at me, my passport, and my visa. One other guard stood to the rear right of the guard seated at the window. The second guard neither spoke nor moved, but kept a hand on his rifle at all times. The first only asked short questions, to which I could only answer “yes” or “no”. At one point, he even asked me if the photo in my passport was of me. (Given, that was understandable the picture had been taken some years earlier, and was to expire about two months after the trip.)

But finally he stamped the visa, handed me back my identification, and I beat a hasty entrance into the Soviet Union. This time, we could wait until the rest of the group had assembled. From there we proceeded to Customs. This was a far easier process. We were asked only if we had anything to declare. I found it rather curious that while the Soviets did everything in the world to prevent my entry into their country, they didn’t seem to mind me smuggling in thirty pounds of narcotics. (Assuming of course, that I had any narcotics.) From there, it was into the airport lobby.

And so we began the waiting game. Namely waiting for our luggage. The most common complaint I’ve ever heard about luggage in the West (after the worry of losing luggage) is waiting for your luggage. But even in North America, the wait is at most 30 minutes. Those of your who complain about long waits in North America should never travel to Moscow. We were waiting over an hour just so we could retrieve our belongings.

The longer we waited, the more temperamental we became. KB was not oblivious to our disgruntled nature. It was then we first learned of what we would soon consider an annoying habit of his. Whenever things started to look grim, or even somewhat not so good, he would splash a huge grin across his face, and promptly announce in a loud sparkling voice: “Smile! You’re in another country!”

The first time we heard that, the general consensus was that KB had lost his mind. We were too young, too centred on the current situation, and not open-minded enough to fully comprehend what KB was attempting to convey. Not to mention the fact that he always uttered this phrase whenever things looked potentially unwell. It got so that every time that he told us to smile because we were somewhere new, we would reply (quietly enough so he wouldn’t hear): “Smile! ‘Cuz we’re getting screwed!”

When we finally were called for our luggage, we found at least part of the reason it took so long for the bags to turn up. It seemed that the gears that powered the conveyor belts caught the corner of Jamie’s suitcase and chewed it to bits, leaving only the structural wire behind. The Soviets were extremely apologetic. They even looked sorry. Fortunately, none of Jamie’s things were harmed, so he only needed to repair the corner with a little duct tape to remedy the problem.

Then it was back to our corner of the terminal to wait for our bus and Soviet tour guide to appear. In the Soviet Union, everything touristy is arranged and operated by Intourist, the Soviet travel agency. They say where you can go, and then they supply the bus to take you there. They also supply the guides to show you around and give you the State-approved schpeal.

That’s assuming that Intourist remembers that you’re there.

Either Intourist forgot we were there, or decided to send the bus fashionably late. Of course, even most teens showing up to the high school dance don’t show up three hours after it starts. No-one at Intourist, however, seemed to have attended any sockhops. Not only did our bus show up after the aforementioned three hours, but our guide didn’t show up at all. No amount of KB’s smiling could get us even remotely chipper after that little fiasco. (It also didn’t help matters that we were all tired, and particularly cranky.)

We grudgingly pulled our bags outside into the grey, drizzly, and heavily polluted Moscow afternoon, filled the underside luggage compartments without too much care for neatness, and boarded the buses. Like most bus-experienced students, I went straight for the back of the bus. But not as far as the back row. The game is to look like you might cause trouble. (It’s a simple formula the appearance of being a troublemaker is inversely proportional to the distance you are from the authority figures. Unless said authority figure is Greg.)

Speaking of Greg… When Lisa V. boarded, she made a beeline for the rear bench. (The buses didn’t have rear seats, opting for what looked like a carpeted panel that sat above the engine compartment. I never sat there, so I really don’t remember.) She claimed it for herself — at least until Greg arrived. He made it quite clear that the bench had his name written all over it. After a few minutes of pleading from one side, and tickle torture threats from the other, Greg managed to evict Lisa from the rear.

The bus then pulled away from the terminal, and we began the trip to our hotel. We didn’t know much of where we were staying, only that it was closer to the downtown core than we were at the time. Of course, “closer” is a relative term in Moscow. The city is enormous. It takes over an hour to get from the airport to Red Square, which is at the heart of Moscow. (And yes, the airport is considered within city limits.)

At we traveled down what I assumed to be one of the major roads (usually called “Propekts”), we began passing hundreds upon hundreds of small, boxy, and loud cars. They are a staple of Soviet transportation, mocked around the world as some of the worst things on four wheels. (But at least they weren’t as bad as the Yugos.) Yes, that’s right, we were in Lada country!

For those of you who have never seen a Lada, imagine (I apologize for the cliche, but it works too well here) a shoebox on wheels. Not only does that convey the approximate design appeal of one of these vehicles, but also the size of them. You’d almost think all Soviets were extremely small to require such tiny vehicles.

Huge apartment complexes were everywhere, there were almost no houses to speak of. They sprang out of the landscape like ungainly grey plants. (The Soviets put as much attention to the design of their apartment buildings as they did their cars.) It was hard to deny culture shock as you slowly began to realize that Muscovites lived in a truly concrete jungle. In North America, we use the term figuratively to describe all the high rise buildings that we create to live and work in. Yet the vast majority live in houses, semidetached dwellings, and townhouses. It’s an entirely different world over there.

The buildings eventually gave way to the banks of the Mosvka (Russian for “Moscow”) River on our right. The Moskva, like many rivers around the world, was a source of life for the city that bears its name. Shipyards lined both banks, loading and unloading all sorts of bulk items. Some of it was probably food, the rest industrial goods. We didn’t get too good a look though, for a run of trees blocked our view only a few moments later.

The trees were actually part of a lush garden. A very large lush garden. Several of us began to assume that the garden was a part of a high-ranking politician’s house. We neglected to remember that under Communism, the mansion would be home to several families, not just one. Of course, that was under Communism. As much as the Soviets would like to have believed, and the United States would have loved to be true, the Soviet Union never reached true Communism. (The advantages of our Russian History classes.) Under Communism, there is no central government, no money, no class structure, nothing to distinguish one individual from another — except for name. The Soviet Union was deeply mired in Socialism. Thus, the mansion was likely the domain of a single family.

Not too far from the massive gardens, but still amongst a lot of greenery, we turned into a large driveway on the right side of the road. We found ourselves driving down a road that was lined on both sides by thick bushes and trees that also obscured our view skywards. But then the trees broke, and we were witness to an immense and elaborate looking building. Almost all of us instinctively thought it was our hotel. The thoughts were immediately accompanied with various utterances to deities and divine dung.

But alas, our dream residence it was not. Our excitement dropped off dramatically as we drove around the side of the building, and onto a wharf running along the Moskva River. We continued down the wharf, leaving our excitement behind. Our excitement was being replaced with confusion what were we doing on a wharf? If we weren’t going to a hotel, then where were we going? That answer was soon to arrive.

We pulled up next to a pair of large boats, looking much like small versions of oceangoing cruise ships. The two boats were lashed side-by-side, with only one ship actually moored to the wharf. Our first impression was that we would be traveling along the Moskva for the remainder of our trip downtown. But we quickly found out that the Dmitri Furmanov, the first of the two ships, was to be our floating hotel for the next two days. We were informed that the three person sleeping arrangements that we had so carefully planned were no longer in effect it was two people to a room.

Faster than the media on a political scandal, Pete and Derek (my two would-be roommates) left me high and dry. I snooze, I lose. Jason had been dumped by his two roommates as well (although I can’t remember who they were), so the two of us teamed up. We were instructed to turn in our passports (as was common practice), put our bags in our rooms, and then attend dinner.

The last instruction was followed by an immediate mass whimper and whine, and most of us declared that we were far too tired to even consider eating. But KB was adamant about us showing ourselves at dinner. No two ways around it, we were having our last square meal of the day, whether we liked it or not.

Jason and I took our key from the front desk, after leaving behind our passports (nothing like leaving your only real proof of citizenship with a total stranger to give you confidence), and trudged our way up to the second floor. Not too far down the hall, we found our room, on the port side (the starboard side was against the wharf).

To say the room was tiny is to say month old rotten eggs are unpleasant. There was barely enough room for two beds, a small table, a nonfunctional refrigerator barely large enough for a six pack, and a private head (the bathroom, for you non-nautical types). The head was a rather interesting spacesaver as well. There was barely enough room for a sink and a toilet. There was also a shower, which took Jason and I a few minutes to figure out how it worked. (The sink’s faucet pulled out on a flexible metal hose. The floor was a gridwork of wood teak, I think to let the water flow out through a drain. Needless to say, everything in the head was waterproof. Even the toilet paper dispenser had its own cover to keep out water.)

Having inspected our quarters, we proceeded to find the dining room. It was at the other end of the ship, but also on the second floor. No-one else had arrived before us, so Jason and I stood around a moment before working up the muster to actually sit down. As we approached a table, we spotted the appetizers sitting at each place setting. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could hear Rod Sterling saying: “– a dimension beyond sight and sound –”

Fish. Again.

Jason and I took two seats at one of the tables, and stared at our meals — which stared right back. (I hate it when chefs leave the heads on fish, it gives me the willies.) Before I could even imagine touching anything on my plate, Pete and Derek arrived to take the remaining seats at our table. Their expressions didn’t look much different than Jason’s or mine.

There was more variety than what we had on the Aeroflot flight, but it didn’t look any more appealing. Salmon, raw and cooked, several sardines, several cuts of other fish (probably including sturgeon), and one unidentifiable brown blob. Derek’s expression was deceiving, as he dove at the place in front of him with hungry abandon. But he took care to eat around the blob. Jason, Pete, and I picked at our food, eating only the salmon.

There was also a plate of bread and cheese, which all four of us partook in, and eight glasses of beverages on the table. Of the two glasses in front of each person was a glass of water, and a small glass of a dark, thick, slimy liquid. My first impression was cod liver oil (it fit with the fish theme). But Jason, catching onto the “try anything once” idea, downed his glass to see what it was.

Prune juice.

As none of the remaining three of us wanted to even touch the stuff, Jason downed all four glasses. (Despite a strong protest on my part after all, I did have to room with the guy.) We assumed that the meal would be light (it had been a long day, and most of us had been awake for almost 36 hours by that point), but it was only the first course.

Everyone who had lost their appetite with the first course found it again when the second course appeared: beef. That was welcomed by everyone, and didn’t last long on the plates. (True, we were tired, but some of us hadn’t eaten a full meal since the transatlantic flight almost 12 hours earlier.) Dinner was officially declared over after that.

But instead of heading directly to bed, the result of catching a seventh wind, we decided to check out the trading scene. In the Soviet Union, things aren’t exactly pristine, as the government would have you believe. The Black Market there is unbelievable. The price of a pair of Levi’s there is outrageous, if you’re willing to part with them. (A few people brought extra pairs.) A Sony Walkman will fetch you easily three times its price in various clothes and baubles. A pair of high-end Reeboks or Nikes? A night with a hooker, including the tip. (Not that I know from experience.)

But the trading varies from place to place. We were warned before arriving that the traders working the wharf were notoriously stubborn, and very stingy when it came to making a fair deal. But that didn’t stop us from finding out for ourselves. There were only two boys, both of whom were veterans, both unbelievably closefisted. And there was very little to trade for that looked of interest.

Returning to the boat, we found Toni, the Lisas, Kim, Kelly, Pete, and Derek on the foredeck. We joined them for a group photo before deciding to go to bed. The light wasn’t very strong, and whomever’s camera we used (it wasn’t mine) took a fairly dim picture. I was surprised we could smile after being awake so long.

And with that, Jason and I headed to bed. We were exhausted. Jason took the initiative and took a shower. I would wait until the following morning before doing same. I pulled out my travel alarm clock from my bag, set the time and set the alarm for about 07:00. I then fell backwards into a very deep sleep, passing out in only a few moments. I didn’t even get a restful moment to contemplate where I was.

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